Last week, Hillary Clinton's campaign blamed her poor debate performance on sexism.
It was a maneuver that seemed suspiciously aimed at detracting from Hillary's lackluster showing whilst simultaneously shoring up her female support. But, ironically, it has had the opposite effect. Rather than fostering a sense of solidarity between women and the first credible female presidential candidate, Hillary's cries of discrimination have left many women cold, and with good reason. We've come a long way, baby -- and Team Hillary seems not to have noticed.
Nor has the political pundit corps, or the bevy of outmoded feminist leaders dredged up this week to discuss the merits of the sexism claim. Virtually all see in the criticism and questioning that Hillary garnered during the debate evidence of misogyny, rather than typical candidate behavior and journalistic professionalism. The initial reaction was that the men were indeed "piling on" (and unfairly), Hillary is the poor embattled woman trying to make it in the "all-boys club" of presidential politics, and that Clinton supporter Geraldine Ferraro was right -- sexism still is "okay" in America.
This is despite the fact that Hillary obviously attracted fire in the debate because she commands a position of power and dominance within the Democratic field, and not because she wears different undergarments from the boys, and deigned to set foot on their turf. She's the boss, not the victimized underling -- just like many women in our respective fields today. Yet while women in boardrooms, classrooms, court rooms, and operating rooms are prepared to take criticism on the nose, just like any man would, Team Hillary and her defenders in the media seem to want the old, chivalric rule from an inequality-riven age to apply. You can't hit a girl -- even though politics is a contact sport.
To many of us women that idea, and the suggestion that we should rally around Hillary at the mere accusation of sexism, "sisters and me" style, seems ludicrous. Worse, it is insulting. Sure, women have often been characterized as simplistic, emotionally-driven beings, but contrary to stereotype and what Team Hillary seems to think, we're level-headed and logical enough to see when a candidate is crying wolf. We're also smart enough to recognize that Hillary is running for president, not auditioning for the Spice Girls. A mere appeal to "Girl Power" isn't going to do it for us, when we know that if Hillary wins the job, she's going to have to face down the likes of Vladimir Putin and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- who are unlikely to go easy on her because she's a girl.
Of course, a glance at some polling might have suggested this to Hillary in the first place. Sure, plenty of surveys conducted thus far in this race show her garnering strong support from women, but as Kellyanne Conway and Celinda Lake note in their book, What Women Really Want, there is little statistical evidence to show that women inherently prefer female candidates to male candidates.
Moreover, recent polling suggests that Hillary's foray into gender politics over the last week or so has been a net loser. Whereas before the debate, several polls showed her hovering around the 50 percent mark when it came to Democratic presidential primary preferences, three polls conducted in the aftermath (Newsweek, Rasmussen and CNN) showed her garnering markedly less support. With only 2 million viewers having tuned into the debate (and likely far fewer having paid close attention), it's unlikely that Hillary's poor showing there is itself to blame. Far more likely, the cries of "sexism" have damaged her standing with voters, and especially high-powered women. As Ana Marie Cox of Time noted this week, college-educated, middle-to-high income-earning women are a weak supporter base for Hillary. It's not a stretch to imagine that members of that group have been particularly put off by her shift from tough, take-no-prisoners feminist icon to the girl who can't take the heat, and blames the boys and discriminatory attitudes to detract from her missteps.
Perhaps that is why, at the end of last week, Hillary tried to walk back from the "sexism" assertion, saying that she doesn't think her opponents piled on because she's a woman, but rather because she's the frontrunner. Still, though, the sexism and Hillary as "woman under siege" meme has not dissipated, especially with her husband implying this week that she'd been "swift-boated" -- an assertion that is likely to further irritate those already frustrated by the employment of the gender card.
Such voters are many in the 21st century -- an era with which Hillary seems not quite to have come to grips. Often seen as stuck in the 1990s, with her interest in rehashing the Clinton-Bush fights of fifteen years ago and idolizing of the Clinton years, her campaign's actions this week showed her stuck in the days of gender wars and bra-burning. The trouble for Hillary is, the rest of society has moved on.